A Trip to Remember

From Nov. 8 to 22, 2011, IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker and Nepal Program Officer Chris Groth traveled to Kathmandu, Birgunj and Pokhara, as part of the IPJ’s Nepal Peacebuilding Initiative. Aker and Groth were joined on this field project by Dr. Donald Gragg, a specialist in addiction medicine, who gave a training with Action for Addiction staff members of the IPJ’s local partner, Sano Paila. The IPJ team also conducted conflict resolution programs with members of civil society, the security sector and political parties. The following is a reflection from the trip by Dr. Gragg.  

It was my great privilege to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my first trekking jaunt to Nepal by accompanying Dee Aker and Chris Groth on a two-week program visit to Nepal. As we approached Kathmandu, the Himalaya Range was shown in full splendor – the best of all my flights into the area. Our arrival in Kathmandu was marked by a crowd of enthusiastic young Nepalis there to greet “Dr. Dee.” I discovered that this was to be the first of many such group greetings, some with large welcome banners greeting all three of us. This was Dee’s 20th visit to Nepal in the past 10 years.

A Maoist Constituent Assembly member presenting me with the TYA Excellence Achiever's Award

The next 12 days were filled with workshops, visits to groups and villages, TV tapings, many meals, much tea and a little sleep. I won’t try to recount all of our activities, but just describe a few of the more memorable ones.

Dee and Chris first conducted a mediation training session with young women from the armed police force, political parties and civil society before I joined them to visit the United Nations Development Program office. My impression was that of good people working hard, but unfortunately entangled in bureaucracy. Most of the next day was devoted to a visit to a college training students for work in hospitality and tourism, where Dee and I, together and separately, were interviewed for broadcast on Nepal TV. Today’s Youth Asia (TYA), a Nepali NGO and a partner in the IPJ’s Nepal project, is a multimedia training and production house. They have a regular nightly show on Nepal national TV, and our interviews were broadcast while we were in Nepal. TYA presented me with an Excellence Achiever’s Award and Chris with a Youth Leadership Award before we departed. These presentations were also slated for national TV.

Dee and I dancing with the children at Raksha Nepal’s school

One of the more unique experiences of the trip was a visit to Raksha Nepal (RN), a program for girls and women who have escaped from forced prostitution. RN has dormitory facilities, counseling programs and a school to teach basic skills and some vocational training. It also operates a school for the children of these women, and we had an opportunity to hear them sing Nepal’s new national anthem and even do a dance with them.

We took a 17-minute flight from Kathmandu south to Birgunj on the border with India (a rough 5-hour drive) where we again had a mass welcome. We drove the half-hour from the airport to our hotel in an SUV with a banner flying from the front fender like we were some major officials. We had two motorcycle escorts in front and behind us with their own banners. The banners were the flag of Sano Paila, the NGO that was hosting our visit to Birgunj and is doing some fantastic work in this depressed area. They initiated an effort along with the district police chief that resulted in many acres devoted to growing marijuana being changed to other crops such as rice, which was covered by Al Jazeera.

Participants in the Action for Addiction workshop

We spent one day in the remote village Nichuta outside Birgunj working with a women’s group to help them learn how to more effectively exert influence for improving their schools, roads and health care. The next day I conducted a workshop with 14 young and energetic volunteers who are developing a residential treatment program for intravenous drug abusers, while Dee and Chris worked with another group on ways to get a sugar mill back into operation to provide jobs and a market for sugar cane.

We took the short flight back to Kathmandu for an overnight at our hotel, The Malla, which is where I stayed 20 years ago. Before we left for the 5-hour drive west to Pokhara, we had breakfast at the home of a senior Nepali Congress Party official and his wife. On the way to Pokhara we stopped and visited three state schools that had libraries provided by Room to Read. It was refreshing to see these young children enthusiastically reading, particularly those at a school for the deaf who “read out loud” – signing with American Sign Language as they read.

Machapuchare (“Fish Tail”) from Pokhara

The most remarkable thing about Pokhara for me was the mountains. These were the mountains I hiked around 20 years ago, and the weather was so clear it almost seemed like you could reach out and touch them.  Unfortunately I had a cough and fever the whole time in Pokhara, but I still got to visit two village women’s savings and loan clubs.  The women deposited the equivalent of $1.25 per month and received 8 percent interest. One club with 200 members had $50,000 in equity and another with 300 members had $100,000 in equity. The money was loaned out at 14 percent interest to members to set up small businesses, such as buying a goat to sell the milk or a flock of chickens to sell the eggs.  While I ate soup and stayed in bed to attempt a recovery, Dee and Chris conducted another workshop for young leaders in the area.

Another bumpy 5-hour drive back to Kathmandu was followed by a night to repack, say goodbye to many wonderful friends and then depart on the long flight home. Antibiotics, soup and rest ultimately conquered my malady, which a subsequent x-ray showed to be pneumonia.

Talking with schoolchildren in Nichuta

There are two things that stick with me the most about the trip. The first is the enthusiastic, intelligent young people who are determined to improve life in their country. The second is the way that Dee and her program have offered help to these young people and influenced their development as leaders. The IPJ’s Nepal Peacebuilding Initiative has spread many seeds to prevent and/or resolve conflict. These seeds have fallen onto fertile soil in Nepal, and it is obvious that many of these seeds are prospering and having a positive influence on Nepal as it evolves into a new democratic republic.